Sunday, September 17, 2017

Escape Artist Steve Baker, aka Mr. Escape, Has Died

My friend and mentor, Steve Baker has passed away. He died at 11:11pm on Saturday Sept 16th, 2017 at his home in Illinois. His wife Julie, who was his faithful assistant throughout his career was by his side when he passed. Steve had been ill for quite a long time, but recently suffered several mini strokes which he did not recover from.

In the 1970s and 80s, Steve Baker was all over TV with his fabulous escapes. His career started a few years earlier when he hung upside down in front of the Tribune Tower Building in Oakland CA to recreate Houdini's Upside Down Strait Jacket Escape. Steve freed himself from the jacket in record time and it began his full time career in 1967.

Steve was known professionally as Mr. Escape. You might wonder where he got the name from? Well, the name had been used briefly by Steranko. According to Steve Baker, he asked Steranko if he could use it. A little known fact, when Steve Baker did his Tribune Tower Escape he was known as The Great Gerhart, so he was in need of a good stage moniker. 

Steve was a favorite of Dick Clark the TV celebrity and producer. In the 70s, Dick Clark invited Steve to present many daring escapes on his various TV shows. His very first was on Dick Clark LIVE Wednesday on NBC. Steve presented a thrilling version of Houdini's Water Torture Cell Escape.  He followed that appearance up with his Coffin of Death, and then a return visit had him doing a Double Hanging Strait Jacket Escape. Steve also did a challenge escape from a device created by one of the home viewers.

In the 1980s, Dick Clark had a show in CBS called Dick Clark LIVE, and Steve was again, brought on to do numerous escapes. Among those was his Tug of War Rope Tie, his Water Tank of Death, and a very thrilling original escape he called Death Race.

Despite his ability to free himself from anything, his life was not always so carefree. A freak accident while performing the Coffin of Death for the International Brotherhood of Magicians Convention, left him with severe burns on his hands.

In the mid 1990s, Steve was hit by a car in the parking lot of a grocery store which brought about numerous complications. Imagine that, the guy who had been chained to cars and was able to free himself, was hit by a car when not even chained. Life has an ironic way of playing out sometimes.

Though he tried to restart his career following this, it never really came back. He appeared on one episode of MindFreak and later was escape consultant for Andrew Basso on a TV Special  he was doing in Italy. Privately, Steve and I worked on some things we were going to do but his health gradually deteriorated until he was unable to perform anymore.

Steve had a love/hate relationship with the Escape Community. He had bitter rivalries with a number of escape artists. Probably the most prominent feud was with Norman Bigelow. Most people were unaware however that the two were good friends and respected each other greatly. Though the feud was real at one point in their lives, they preferred to keep it going publicly because they were hoping to face each other in an escape contest. All the details were worked out, but Steve's health and frankly his financial situation prevented it from eventually happening.  But please know, in the end the two finished their lives as fast friends.

This was not the case with others in the escape world. Steve Baker could hold a grudge, lol. And for now, I won't mention those other people. I think he was more connected to the Magic Community than any where else because he began his career as a magician. Most people are unaware that Steve did comedy magic for a long time, and he also had a mentalism act.

Steve Baker remained in the care of his loving wife Julie for the past several years. He lived a very private and secluded life. He no longer had email or internet access, and only a couple people even had his phone number. He preferred to be left alone I believe. When he lived in California,  I used to talk to Steve several times per week. Then when he moved back to Illinois, it was a couple times a month, then once a month, and after his stint in a nursing home rehab, it became several times a year. He always seemed to remember me when I called, but his short term memory had issues. He could remember things from long ago, but remembering things in the short term was a struggle for him.

He was one interesting character. For those who knew him, the regular every day Steve Baker, he was a super nice guy. He was not ego-driven like his on stage persona. His onstage character had the same bravado as Houdini.  In the end, he was just a performer who wanted desperately to get back out there in front of audiences because that is what he enjoyed most, entertaining people.  Life and health just got in his way. RIP my old friend, there surely will not be another like you.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Willard The Wizard

Harry Willard
One night this summer, I some how found myself in the world of Willard the Wizard. I had come across a VHS tape titled 100 Years of Willard. In regards to quality, it's awful, but if you're talking about content it was very interesting.  I think the video dates back to 1995, and I'm not even sure where I picked it up at. Probably one of my late night eBay purchases.

On the video numerous people share their recollections of the Willard show. These are not people like myself who have only read about Willard, these are people who saw him LIVE, and many who knew him and worked for him or with him.  The consensus among these folks was that Willard was THE BEST magician of the 20th Century, even better than our modern day performers. Of course these are just opinions, and if one or two people had said this, I could take it with a grain of salt. But many many people shared this same opinion. But it wasn't just folks on this video. Arthur LeRoy in the November 1950 issue of The Sphinx also said Willard was the Greatest. The Great Virgil, who was no slouch when it came to magic said in Sept 1950, "There has never been a greater magician than Willard." So I think it's important to delve into the life of this man...

The first thing I discovered is that there were a LOT of Willard the Wizards. There was James, the original, who was born and traveled throughout Ireland with his tent show. Then there was James the second, the son of the original who moved to the US and became the first U.S. Willard the Wizard. Then there were his three sons, Harry, Tommy and Bobby, all of whom would eventually become Willard the Wizards. Bobby the eldest son, who was born in the 1880s went back to Europe to tour as Willard the Wizard there. He then took the tour to Australia and died in 1913. Harry Willard was born in 1895 and the youngest brother, Tommy was born in 1903. Both Harry and Tommy would take out shows of their own, replacing their papa James, who became the business manager.

In 1936, Papa Willard passed away, and then a few weeks later Tommy passed away. All the props and equipment from Tommy's show went to Harry. Harry Willard would go on to to be the best known of the Willard the Wizards. But surprisingly, among the family, they all felt that there was no better Willard the Wizard than Papa James. Unfortunately, we know little about his performances.

From an article on Willard in the Nov 1950 of The Sphinx, I learned something very surprising.
When you attended a Willard The Wizard show, you were not bombarded with pitch items. There were no programs, no t-shirts, no toys, no magic sets, nothing to buy beyond the ticket. (I'm not sure about concessions, like popcorn and soda, however). This was a long standing tradition with the Willard's going back to the very original Willard. The feeling was they were performing artists and it was their responsibility to give the best theatrical performance they could. The price of the ticket was enough for them. How different it is today. When attending any sort of show, whether it's a sporting event, concert, circus,play, musical, or magic show, there is a great deal to buy afterwards. Why? Well, people like souvenirs, many folks collect these things. Memorabilia is big business. Plus, it helps to cover many costs associated with putting on a live show. In other words, it's good business. But the feeling from the Willard Show 70 years ago was that you were a huckster to sell such things. It just goes to show how it is a bad idea to judge history by modern sensibilities.

Several sources mention that Harry Willard performed in the style and manner of Alexander Herrmann. Again, I'm assuming that connection is made by folks who were familiar with both entertainers. We know that Herrmann was an especially charismatic performer and was known to be quite funny as well. So I would assume that Willard possessed those qualities as well. An interesting point that was made in an article by Walter Blaney is how humble and unassuming Harry Willard was offstage. In fact, you'd never know he was Willard the Wizard when he was offstage. But when it was showtime he would totally command the stage!

One thing that set Willard apart from other magicians of the time, and possibly the reason he is not better known, was because the Willard show was a tent show. They traveled with a huge circus style tent from town to town. Unlike Thurston, Dante, and Blackstone who were theater performers, Willard was on his own stage every appearance. The show was also a regional show, traveling to mainly areas in Texas in Louisiana. But folks from those areas who saw Harry Willard, all had the same opinion of how great the show was. No less than Walter Blaney said, "He was the BEST magician in the world!". 

Among his performing material he presented, the Metamorphosis, the Dolls House, Selbit's Stretching a Lady, Girl Without a Middle, multiple different levitations, Glass lined trunk, Cremation, the Spirit Cabinet, the Costume Trunk and on and on it went. They traveled with three different shows because over the course of the time they were in a town, they would present all three programs. Just amazing to consider.

Of his performing material, there are some pieces that really stand out. One of those was his Thumb Tie. No one has ever done a better, more convincing thumb tie than Harry Willard. Virgil is quoted in the Willard the Wizard book by Bev Bergeron, "My personal thought on the thumb tie is that there never has been one as good before Willard and I doubt if there ever again will be one as good."

Another classic from the Willard show is The Spirit Cabinet. The version Harry presented was the Anna Eva Fay Spirit Cabinet. He performed it with his wife and later in life he taught his daughter Frances to perform the part of the medium in the routine. Frances Willard later went off to perform the Willard Spirit Cabinet with her husband Glenn Falkenstein for years after. From what I have heard, there is a new generation trained to do The Willard Spirit Cabinet, Frances's daughter Hannah and her husband, Michael Ammar.

One illusion really stands out, The Cannon and Nest of Boxes. I have seen such performed by Blackstone Jr., Mark Wilson, and others. Usually. the illusion involves a rather large and frankly fake looking cannon that the girl climbs into and is apparently shot INTO the boxes. But Willard used a real cannon. The assistant was strapped to the mouth of the cannon, and when it went off, a huge puff of smoke and a very large BANG! In that moment she vanished! No coverings, she simply vanished. Oh man I wish I had seen this as it sounds spectacular! And of course she was discovered moments later inside a nest of boxes. I should point out, because other writers have also pointed it out, that the nest of boxes were awfully small, which made the illusion even more sensational and bewildering.

Harry Willard died at the age of 74 in San Antonio Texas. He had just received a Performing Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts in February of 1970, a few months before he passed. I have purposely left off the bigger details of the lives of the Willards as I didn't think I could do it justice from the little information I have used as source material. There is a book by David Charvet, published by MC Magic Words called, Willard: A Life Under Canvas, that will surely do a far better job of detailing the life of Harry Willard and his family than I can do here. I actually, don't have a copy of the book, which now is top on my list of books to get! And if you'd like to learn more about Willard the Wizard, I would encourage you to try and find Bev Bergeron's book Willard the Wizard or David Charvet's book Willard: A Life Under Canvas.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Bill Tarr Author Of The Best Selling Magic Book Of All Time

Bill Tarr on cover of Now You See It Now You Don't Notebook

Back in 1976, a new book of sleight of hand appeared in book stores across the United States. The book was called Now You See It, Now You Don't by author Bill Tarr. The book was illustrated by Barry Ross. The book was divided into sections on cards, coins, and billiard balls. The action of each sleight or maneuver was captured wonderfully in the line drawings done by Barry Ross.  Now You See It, Now You Don't is the all time best selling book in the history of magic.

The following year, Bill Tarr followed up with 101 Easy To Learn Classic Magic Tricks. This book was illustrated by Frank Daniel in a very similar style to that of Barry Ross. In 1978, Bill Tarr again came out with another book on sleight of hand, The Second Now You See It Now You Don't and Barry Ross was back as illustrator. Again the book was broken into chapters and delved even further into sleight of hand and manipulation style magic.

For folks growing up in the 1970s, these books, which by the way were published for the general public, were our first exposure to many of magics secrets of manual dexterity. In the 1800s, there was Modern Magic, Later Magic and More Magic by Professor Hoffmann. In the 1930s  and later you had the Tarbell Course in Magic, though this was not for the general public. But in the 1970s the Now You See It Now You Don't Books were the go to book for budding young magicians.

In 1998, Bill Tarr put out another book, this time through magic book publisher Kaufman and Company, the book was called The Now You See It, Now You Don't Notebook. Tarr also put out a video on Basic Card Sleights, Natural Sleight of Hand, and Basic Coin Techniques, as well as a number of tricks including Dazzle and Steel Fingers. Earlier in his life he wrote a column called Slik Sleights for The Conjurors Magazine from Dec 1947 to September 1948.

Who was this fellow Bill Tarr? He was born May 31st 1925 in New York City, NY. At 10 years old he became interested in magic. He would often frequent Max Holden's Magic Shop, as well as Flosso's Magic Shop. This is at a time when folks like Dai Vernon, Doc Daley, Jean Hugard and others were in town, and Bill would watch and study them from afar.

As a teenager he began to do shows around NYC. This was the early 1940s just as World War 2 was starting. Many of the regular magicians were getting drafted, so this left a lot of work for Bill. Though much of the work was not high paying, it was great experience and his audiences were fantastic.  At 17, he enlisted in the Navy and was trained in meteorology. He was stationed in a secret U.S. base  in Siberia. He severed honorably for 3years.

Bill Tarr in 1947
In the December 1947 issue of The Conjurors Magazine, there is an article on Bill Tarr which states that after his time in the Navy he intended on making magic his full time profession.  Despite his life long interest in magic, Bill Tarr actually became a well known sculptor. His most famous piece is was a massive memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King which took 2 years to complete at a cost of $53,000.  The memorial to Dr King is located right next to Lincoln Center. According to Mr. Tarr, "It's probably the largest welded steel sculpture in the country, maybe the world...120 feet in girth and weighing 63 tons."

Besides being a prestigious sculptor, Tarr also occasionally performed a mental act with his wife Yvonne.

Bill Tarr died from Parkinson's disease on November 7th, 2006. He was 81 years old.

It appears all of his books are still available. I don't think the videos are produced any more however.

Special Note: The 'Best Selling Magic Book' quote was from 1988, I don't know if any magic book for the public has since set a new record.